Proving -- perhaps conclusively -- that night TV is best left taped, not live, the late night guys and one very animated late night woman returned to the air Wednesday . . . taped.
It was all good and they were all good (with one exception) -- a crazy blend of catharsis, civic lessonry, reflection, perspective, passion, anger, love, hate, sorrow, joy, misery, elation and all those inimitable qualities normally associated the state of being hungover.
These programs -- from “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” to “The Late Late Show with James Corden” -- were also all taped (again, with one exception.) As noted, that was best, too, for them and for us.
Quickly, some perspective, and then on to winners and losers, because -- following a wild presidential election -- we certainly want more of those kinds of lists, don’t we?
On Tuesday, “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” planned live editions suffused with the comfortable and happy thought that the candidate of their choice would be chosen by the rest of the country when they aired live, which would make all of those pre-written jokes about the other candidate a slam dunk. It seemed a risk worth taking, until the actual election happened. Colbert’s live edition was a disaster. Noah’s live edition was a success -- if only because the host didn’t lose his footing, while capturing the horror of the unfolding moment, or specifically his horror.
But comedy, like turkeys, needs to be basted. It needs time to think, too -- at least a few hours anyway.
The election of Donald Trump was so momentous, so unexpected, that comedy required about 24 hours to think. And on another note: Late night television has a vital role in this process of electing a president, and a vital role in coming to terms with the result. Everyone last night had the obvious “five stages of grief” riff on Wednesday, but to an extent, they are the sixth stage -- at their best, a comic coup de grace that puts our own emotional state into a much-need perspective.
Who coup-de-graced best last night? To our winners . . .
This list is neither scientific nor fair, but rather predicated on my own reflections of these hosts the past 18 months, and just how perfectly -- or imperfectly -- their styles ultimately comported to one of the most important nights of their careers -- the night after the most historic election in American history. Again, this list isn’t fair because it is also based only on monologues. But monologues remain, as always, the calling card of late night. Get it right there, or don’t even bother.
1.) “Late Night with Seth Meyers”: Capping a blazing 18-month run in which he not only assaulted Donald Trump but assaulted him so effectively that the candidate said he would never appear on his show, Seth Meyers saved perhaps his best “A Closer Look” for last. It had everything: From jokes about Italian greyhounds (his own) to a moving and downright beautiful address to young women out there, one of whom will one day be the first woman president of the United States. But what was so good about all this was tone -- Meyers captured the disbelief of the moment, even a day later, but also a sense of optimism. His wasn’t a downer, but an upper -- generous, but also realistic. Of that optimism? Voters “legalized recreational marijuana and not a minute too soon.”
2.) “Full Frontal”: Samantha Bee offered what might be called fury-by-proxy. She roared through an opener that never flagged nor offered some sort of phony late night palliative to viewers that “everything is going to be OK, because this is democracy in action!” Oh no -- Sam slew. “Our democracy just hocked up a marmalade hairball ...” Or: Voters had a choice between “a vile of weaponized testosterone and option B. and decided, oh, I’ll just take him because I don’t like her.” Whether you agree or not, or agree with Bee or not, comedy is about anger, and Bee was angry. Even after a 24-hour cooling off period, her anger even got hotter. Bravo.
3.) “Daily Show.” Noah and “TDC” needed to prove something this election -- that the guy who replaced Jon Stewart wouldn’t turn into an asterisk or reason to fire the guy who hired him in the first place. Mission accomplished and then some: Noah’s “TDC” turned in some smart comedy this season, and Noah turned into a polished late nighter with his own distinct style which never once mimicked Stewart’s. As mentioned, his Tuesday “live” edition was good because he didn’t fall on his face, so to speak, when confronted with his own personal armageddon. Wednesday was much better. He offered the bright side -- that at least Trump would conceivably continue to provide material (“He’s gone zero days without an incident -- day one! 1,459 days to go.”) He even pulled up an old Trump tweet for some joke, then offered: “Sorry Donald, that’s what happens when you get a new job. People dig through your tweets.”
4.) “Late Show”: On Wednesday, Stephen Colbert picked up his jaw, re-attached it, then straightened his tie, squared his shoulders and re-located his mojo. In his second consecutive live edition, he spent 16 minutes Wednesday masticating the election results -- that’s an eternity and arguably too much of an eternity here. The last couple of minutes could have gone (a conversation with God . . . meh) but Colbert otherwise did use this time wisely and well. He didn’t succumb to the temptation of mawkish emotion -- been there, did that Tuesday -- and when he looked like he was going down that road again, this: “Being an American citizen is like family. You are in whether you like it or not. When your uncle Ernie says racist stuff at the dinner table, you don’t storm out and move next door. You stay and elect him commander-in-chief.” Yes,this was all live, which has been very good for Colbert and "LS" this season -- with just one unfortunate exception.
5.) “Late Late Show with James Corden”: Not much of a factor this election, but his post-night wrap had all the charm that Corden pretty much has in abundance anyway. A couple of decent jokes (watching the election coverage, “you flipped around and every news anchor was going, ‘aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh’”) were followed by an invocation for peace-in-our-time (“...treat people with love and respect, and put your arm around someone and tell them you care...”) If any other late night guy had said this, you’d throw a rock at the set -- but it felt just right with Corden.
6.) “Jimmy Kimmel Live:” Kimmel had another good run this season, and wrapped nicely -- good “five stages of grief” riff; amusing opener with Guillermo, in which he burned all the garbage from the campaign in a trash bin; a “translation” of Vladimir Putin’s “congratulatory address” to the president-elect; a funny "what's next for the characters from this election." Demerits for continuing to run his “Jimmy Kimmel for vice president” campaign into the ground. He should have tossed that into the trash bin, too.
7.) “Conan”: Coco managed a particularly good balance between civics lesson patriotism and jokery -- “In America, we get to pick who is going to ruin our country. It’s up to us. We get to chose!!” Best of all, he brings in the Really Tall Dachshund -- as a reminder that while crazy stuff does happen, it can still get even a little crazier.
8.) “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”: Last and deservedly so, Jimmy’s struggled to recapture his balance since the Donald Trump Hair-Missing incident -- irony-alert, Jimmy’s hair looked mussed last night -- and didn’t do much to re-capture it once and for all last night. He opened with a few OK jokes, and got a picture of the “Trump Victory Cake” (cue to the Chris Christie joke). But it all felt limp and unconvincing. Worse, he offered not just an invocation for national unity, but one for himself: “We all need some laughs tonight, and that’s what I do. I hope no matter how you’re feeling to spread some joy and put a smile on your face ... We’ll be here for you.” If there’s a word worse than “dreadful” to describe this, I can’t use it because it would be of the four-letter variety.